Why Does My Fish Stick To The Pan?
A while ago on the Reluctant Gourmet Cooking Forum, there was quite a lengthy discussion of how to properly pan fry or saute fish to prevent it from sticking. There was so much conversation about it that I thought it would make a good article. I think we've all experienced that awful feeling when you try to turn your fish in the pan and it just won't turn. Hopefully this lesson will give you the tools you need to perfectly cook a piece of fish.
The first thing to understand about fish is that it is very high in protein while also being relatively low in fat. This can make for a very healthy meal, but it also is a recipe for disaster if you don't know what you're doing. Believe me - I've been there.
Protein sticks. It is what glue is made from. If proteins are allowed to denature - chemically unravel - slowly, they stick firmly. Ever try to clean up egg white that has spilled onto and dried on the stove top? It is a mess.
Since proteins stick when they slowly unravel, you have to make sure that they cook quickly. This means that the heat must be high enough to start setting the proteins immediately.
There are a few keys to ensuring a lovely, seared piece of fish:
- Medium-high heat
- Hot pan
- Dry fish
Temperatures Are Important
As was pointed out in the discussion on the forum, browning doesn't start until 320° F, so the surface of your pan must be at least that hot before you add the fish.
Since the temperature in the pan will drop when you add the fish, make sure that the fish isn't at refrigerator temperature so the heat will recover more quickly. Take your fish out of the refrigerator at least fifteen to thirty minutes before cooking.
Preheat a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or other wide, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat until a few drops of water immediately boil violently and evaporate after only a couple of seconds. This is a great way to know when a pan is hot enough to saute or pan fry.
Dry Fish Is Important
If your recipe says to rinse the fish off before cooking, make sure that you pat the fish dry. You'll most likely be cooking the fish in butter, oil or some combination and fat and water don't mix. So make sure you remove as much water from the surface of the fish as you can.
Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Remember we are talking about pan frying or sauteing, not shallow frying. The distinction of these terms will be discussed in a future post because the more I read about these two cooking techniques, the more confused I get. If you tend to be heavy handed with the oil, you can just brush some directly on the fish.
Skin Side Down
Let the oil heat up until it shimmers in the pan before adding the fish. If you've brushed the oil directly on the dry piece of fish, just place it in the pan, skin-side down (if it has skin), and let it sit. I say skin side down because most chefs I've talked to about this say you always put the finished side (the side that will be seen when plated) down first.
I'm not sure but I think it's because the pan (or grill) is hottest just before you add the fish and you get the best grill marks. When the fish hits the pan, it absorbs some of the heat and cools down a little. Doesn't it always seem the flip side of whatever you're cooking doesn't have as good grill marks?
Skin Side Up?
I know another chef who disagrees with "skin side down." He suggests always cook fish, chicken, meats skin side up. His logic is the heat from the pan or grill pushes the internal juices away from the heat source to the opposite side. When you flip the fish (chicken, meat) over, the skin helps prevent the juices from leaking out.
I'm not sure his theory is scientific or what Harold McGee would say, but it seems logical and it is often the way I cook chicken breasts with skin on them. I suggest you try cooking two pieces of fish or chicken, starting with one skin side up and the other skin side down. Cook them exactly the same and see if there is any difference in moistness. Be sure to look to see if any juices leak out.
Don't Play With Your Food
As I was reading over the forum discussion, one sentence jumped out at me: "I didn't move it in the pan until it was time to turn." Remember you mom always tell you not to play with your food? The same is true when cooking fish, or any protein for that matter, the only way you will know when it is time to turn it is when the protein naturally releases from the pan.
If you are relying on a recipe's instruction to "turn after three minutes," you could run into trouble. When a protein has browned nicely, it will release from the pan with minimal sticking, if any at all.
Place the fish skin-side (or prettiest side) first in the pan and do not move it until it lets you. Adjust the heat so you hear a good sizzle but not any very loud sputtering and popping, and allow the fish to cook and develop a nice sear. It takes as long as it takes, but don't walk away from it. You have to be ready to turn it when it is ready to give.
After the first three minutes or so, try and lift up the fish with a wide fish spatula. If it releases easily, gently turn the fish. If not, give it about another 30 seconds and try again. Don't force it, though. You shouldn't have to scrape with the spatula.
Once the fish releases, turn the fish and let it cook until it is firm and opaque but not yet flaking. If you let it flake in the pan, you will end up overcooking your fish due to carryover cooking.
If cooking a thicker cut of fish to be finished in the oven, the same searing technique applies. Place the presentation side of the fish in the hot pan and let sear until it releases. Turn the fish, sear until lightly golden and then finish in the oven until the fish is firm and opaque but not flaking. Again, carryover cooking comes into play, so make sure you allow for that.
Some people will dust a piece of fish with a light coating of seasoned flour to help keep it from sticking. This is a perfectly valid way to cook fish, especially if you will be serving it with a thickened pan sauce since the flour on the fish mixes with the oil in the pan to form a roux. However, if you follow the rules of hot pan - hot oil - dry fish - time, you will find that you don't need the added insurance of the flour and will only use it if you want to.
What's Your Favorite Technique
Following these tips and techniques should help you cook fish without it sticking to the pan. Of course if you have your own personal favorite methods for keeping fish from sticking, we would love to hear from you.